2017 will be the last year of operation for the famed Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Our city had a rich and early connection with many travelling circuses that performed here and contributed to the delight, and sometimes to the troubles, of the city. Some residents of our area found fame as performers and some actually snuck along when the circus left town.
In May of 1875 W. W. Cole, proprietor of the Quincy circus, as well as the New York and New Orleans Zoological and Equestrian Exposition opened his season with two performances at the corner of Twelfth and Broadway. A street parade led by the newly gilded band-chariot drawn by camels contained Prof.Stowe’s full band. The parade also featured Conklin the lion tamer, a snake charmer and a steam calliope. It was promised that under the tent Mademoiselle Christine would ascend to the top of the center pole, and various equestriennes, leapers and clowns would astound the audience. The citizenry was urged to attend the performance as a show of gratitude to Mr. Cole who had wintered his circus in Quincy over the previous two years.
W. W. Cole began his first circus here in Quincy in 1871. When he left to tour the country, the troop was in circus wagons built by a local carriage manufacturer, the E.M. Miller Company. By 1900, Cole had successfully retired to a New York brownstone and owned a large amount of stock in the Barnum and Bailey, the Forepaugh and Sella shows as well as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
Forepaugh’s famous show is described by the Quincy Daily Whig in July of 1881. It boasted twenty trained elephants, as well as camels, lions, serpents and the requisite bands and steam calliope. This troop used two rings and featured Mlle Zuila, a high-wire walker who rode a ‘velocipede along the wire at a rapid rate of speed,” and George Loyal who “was fired into the air from a cannon, being caught by Zulia, who hung suspended from the trapeze.”
Local circus performers included: Dr. I. T. Dryer, the Ahern Brothers, acrobats (John Ahern later became our Chief of Police), the Potter Family, Ed Guthrie, and the Fisher Brothers, who first performed on a skating rink on the lot later occupied by the Newcomb Hotel at Fourth and Maine. George Adams, a well-known circus clown was a nephew of W.W. Cole. He arrived from England to join his uncle’s circus and ever after claimed our city as his home. George Conklin of Quincy also went with Cole as an animal trainer. In 1906 Conklin thwarted the theft of an elephant named KoKo, when a disgruntled employee of Barnum and Bailey circus attempted to steal and then sell the pachyderm. William Fees whose father was a Quincy fireman named Joe Fees, and Tom Buckley also of Quincy performed with the Wallace show.
Every circus had a menagerie, horses, acrobats, tumblers, aerialists and bicycle acts which were very popular. When the Wallace Circus arrived in 1901, their spectacle included a baby hippopotamus and a baby llama.
In 1908, an Ursa Farmer tried a novel remedy against Ringling Brothers when his sixteen-year-old son abandoned farm life for life on the road. Jesse Whips sued the circus for $2,500. Grounds for the suit were based on “the legal right a parent has to the earnings of a minor child until his majority is attained.” Whips said he didn’t emancipate his son or give his consent, therefore he was due recompense. The boy in question, Fred Whips began as a general worker, but was promoted to a boss around the big tent and later put in charge of lights. The case dragged through the courts before eventually being dismissed in Quincy.
When Ringling Brothers came to town in 1910, the show had forty elephants, one hundred and eight cages of wild animals, twelve hundred and eighty men, women and children, six hundred and fifty horses and much more. It took eighty-five double-length train cars to move the circus. The performance consisted of one hundred and twenty-five acts. The logistics of feeding, housing and moving such an army required an additional two hundred advance men. Sixty-eight tons of bread was consumed in a season along with milk “of a quantity that would float the largest battleship.” It was calculated that it required 2,700 barrels of flour to make enough paste for one season of posting the colorful circus advertising flyers.
By 1914, it was possible to watch the great Hagenbeck and Wallace Circus inside a theater. The Family Theater offered such a showing on October 31, 1914, as a Halloween attraction. But travelling circuses were still in vogue. When Ringling Brothers arrived in 1916, it had grown to eighty-nine train cars divided between four trains. First to arrive and set up was the commissary. Trains two and three were equipment, including twenty-eight tents, and the animals. The fourth train consisted of Pullman cars and was occupied by performers and executives.
In 1917, the circus prospered even during the world war. Quincy served as winter quarters for the Harvey Circus, which was an off-shoot of the Hagenback-Wallace show, put together by a man from Perry, Iowa. Locals, including Mr. and Mrs. William Beckman returned to town from a successful season as aerialists with Ringling Brothers, Willis Patrick had been a clown with the group, and Perry and Hicks who had been with the Campbell Circus were in town visiting on their way home to Keokuk. Other Quincy residents including Gilbert Harland and Jack Walkup played as musicians, touring the country and Europe. A complete list of Quincyans involved with a Big Top has never been compiled. But the lure of the circus has always been a dream, and one that Quincy fully participated in from its earliest times.
“Another Circus in Quincy”, The Quincy Daily Whig, October 31, 1914
“Another Grand Gal Day at Quincy”, The Quincy Daily Whig, July 20, 1881
“Circuit Court Proceedings”, The Quincy Daily Journal, December 9, 1908
“Circus Day in Quincy”, The Quincy Daily Journal, May 22, 1905
“Circus Performers Arrive in Quincy”, The Quincy Daily Whig, November 8, 1917
“First 1916 Circus for Quincy Arrives Sunday”, The Quincy Daily Herald, September 9, 1916
“Greatest Show on Earth Here”, The Quincy Daily Journal, July 21, 1904
“Quincy Boy Leaves with Circus, Police Are Told”, The Quincy Daily Journal, September 12, 1923
“Quincy Circus is Planned”, The Quincy Daily Whig, August 06, 1905
“Quincy Man Captures a Stolen Elephant”, The Quincy Daily Whig, January 12, 1906
“Quincy Musicians will Join Circus Band For Season”, The Quincy Daily Journal, April 17, 1921
“Ringlings Are Coming”, The Quincy Daily Journal, July 18, 1910
“Say Harvey’s Circus will Winter in Quincy”, The Quincy Daily Whig,November 3, 1917
“The Big Show Soon Coming”, Quincy Daily Herald, July 20, 1901
“The Circus is in Town”, The Quincy Daily Journal, May 18, 1903
“The Circus Season”, The Quincy Daily Herald, May 02, 1875
“Visit Recalls Older Times”, The Quincy Daily Herald, July 21, 1904